My Soul – Thu 21st Jun 07

What does it mean to have a soul?

Does the expression have any importance?  Does it have it any meaning?

I believe we can answer these questions.

First of all we must decide what a soul is.  There are three interpretations that I’ll consider:

1.       The soul is a spiritual supernatural entity that exists in humans.

2.       The soul is synonymous with “body” and just another word for being.  i.e.: Genesis says that Adam “became a living soul”; it does not say that he was given one.

3.       The soul as a metaphor.

I don’t accept the first interpretation because it defies common sense.  Although many beliefs are based on the idea of an immortal transcendent component, that doesn’t make those beliefs right.  After all, the soul is the only way to explain such far-fetched flights of fancy like the afterlife, karma, reincarnation etc.  Though maybe not strictly revolving around the same thing, they all posit “something” that enables thoughts/memories/fate etc to survive after death.

There are at least two good reasons why the soul in this sense is irrational.  First, the soul is often described as a ghostly being with the ability to see, hear, sense, and even touch.  This makes no sense.  Everything we know about the world shows us physical creatures that interact with a physical world through physical senses.  Is this artificially limiting our understanding?  No.  Why?  Ok, close your eyes and tell me what you see.  Put headphones on and tell me what you hear.  Do both and tie your arms around your back and see how far you get.  To invent an entity that can see without any sight organs and hear without any auditory equipment, and sense without any physical form or nerve endings, is precisely that: pure invention.  You might as well be writing science fiction or fantasy.  It is a contradiction in terms.

For the same reason, so is the notion of life after death.  You’re alive now, because your body temperature is being regulated, your brain activity is at a certain level, your lungs are bringing in oxygen, and your heart is circulating the oxygen around your body and bringing deoxygenised blood back to the lungs for expulsion.  These processes maintain your vital signs. 

Your consciousness (despite what junk science and blatant fabrications might tell you) is a property of the very complex workings of your brain.  Intelligence and consciousness is directly related to brain size and activity; specifically in the cerebral cortex.  Dogs, cats, and pigs having greater cerebral cortex surface area (grey matter) than fish, horses, and mice.  As a result they are more intelligent.  The human brain is the most sophisticated brain of all on the planet.  Our brain has considerable portions devoted to higher thinking, reasoning, and language.  This is why we have the unique abilities we do.  At some point in the past, the brain of what became Homo sapiens (literally: thinking man) reached a critical mass where it was able to reason and think so much it became aware of its own existence!  Consciousness was born.  Still in doubt?  Drink a pint of vodka.  See how good your consciousness is then.  This is because alcohol (very loosely speaking) interrupts brain activity, and the result is a loss of function and reasoning.  If you’re still not convinced that consciousness resides in the brain, I suggest a less subtle approach: run into a brick wall at full speed head first, and see if you remain conscious after a concussion.

To be consciously aware when one is unconscious is a contradiction; this is common sense and no one would disagree surely.  It is as much a contradiction to talk about still having fingers without hands.  Think about that for a few seconds.  Now imagine that some terrible incident has ended your brain activity, such as: gunshot; blunt-force trauma; myocardial infarction; watching too much Big Brother.  To talk of still having consciousness after brain death is to speak of unconscious consciousness!  Our consciousness and thinking, indeed what makes us human, resides in the encephalon floating in your skull.  In other words, life after death is like talking about handless fingers, a non-brain thought, or a square circle.

I know to many the idea of life after death is necessary and comforting, but you really are kidding yourself.  I cannot put that any simpler.  Life after death is the ultimate human fantasy.  And in some cases it’s also the greatest lie of all.

What about the soul as the body itself?  Well I have no problem with this interpretation, but it doesn’t get us anywhere; it’s just another word for being or body really, so there isn’t much more to be said.

I believe there can be a use for the word “soul” though, if one is clear that the word has no supernatural connotation.  Unfortunately this isn’t always the case so it’s up to you whether you agree with me or not.

I think the word soul can mean something when we talk about what makes us human.  It is a convenient, (perhaps lazy) way of referring to all the things that define a human intellectually.  These might be: intelligence; empathy, conscience, capacity for humour and love etc; ability to reflect and predict.  No animal shares all these traits.  There might be more, and I’m not a psychologist but I believe that small list is sufficient for what we’re talking about.

I sometimes use the word soul metaphorically, perhaps poetically.  When I do, I refer to a person owning these traits above, i.e.:  their humanity.  So by this thinking, a perfect example of a soulless person would be a psychopath.  A psychopath might have no empathy for other human beings, or might not have the capacity for love.  A psychopath or sociopath might have no conscience.  These would be paradigm examples of people with no soul.

People who commit acts of terror could be thought of as courageous and brave.  It is said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.  Whether we agree with this isn’t the point.  Humans flew planes into the World Trade Centre, and their convictions were so strong they had enormous faith and belief in what they were doing.  They were human beings, but they were blinded by their faith and dogma so intensely, they could not reason for themselves.  Their intelligence was compromised.  I think soulless could refer to this type of person too.

The type of person that is in some respects rational and intelligent, but in others blinded by their own beliefs or faith or fear, doesn’t act normally.  They act like zombies, or robots.  They lose that thing that makes them human; and a human that acts like this is no better in some ways than an animal that either acts on instinct or does whatever it’s told.  A good example of this type of person might be a fundamentalist.  I don’t think fundamentalists have souls.

I’m not saying that people without souls aren’t humans.  I’m just speaking poetically; I’m simply invoking the word metaphorically to mean “that which is unique to humans; that which makes us human.”

If you accept this line of thought, a soul is not some ethereal cloud of magic floating around you.  Your soul is in you; your soul is part of you.  You can lose it, but you can also regain it.  And perhaps humans as the often-capricious beings that we are, oscillate between soulful and soulless each day.

The point is that if you don’t have the capacity for reason, for empathy, for love and humour, for reflection and prediction, and have a conscience, you aren’t metaphorically human.

Fortunately, very few people are like this, and I believe thinking of the soul in this rather natural poetic way is far better than the mystical quixotic mysterious entity of fairy tales and religion and all the metaphysical baggage it carries.  It’s also perhaps a far better way to check our human centres for what we really are about, instead of what we’ll be in an imaginary afterlife.


5 Responses to “My Soul – Thu 21st Jun 07”

  1. The Imugi Says:

    Much thought concerning the “soul” in Western philosophy is bogged down with a Platonic/Cartesian dualism.

    Option #2 I think could be explored in much more detail, I think. Typically, when we think of a “soul” we think of some kind of detachable, ectoplasmic consciousness which is contained (perhaps trapped?) inside the body. Could it not be possible that the “soul” is not contained by the body, but contains the body? Aristotle’s theory of hylomorphism is still somewhat dualistic, but I think it presents a much more coherent view of the soul. In this sense, soul is not simply “body” nor is it a “ghost”, nor is it a “metaphor”. It means something more like “mode of being” or “capacity for existence”. In this sense, everything that is has a “soul”, although not a Platonic/Cartesian soul.

    I guess I pretty much agree with what have to say about Option 3, but I think in a sense it’s more than simply a metaphor 😉

  2. evanescent Says:

    Looking at your expansion of #2 then Imugi, you would say that all things in existence have “souls” (like chairs and cars)? Is the “soul” a new kind of substance, ontologically speaking, or is it the same substance as the rest of the universe?

    Do you think it adds anything metaphysically to our understanding of the world?

    I, very much like you, shudder when anything dualistic comes my way! 😉

  3. The Imugi Says:

    Hmmm, well I would say that the soul is definitely of the same “substance” as the rest of the universe. I think of it simply as the “mode” of that substance which a given being exercises—the capacity of that thing for existence.

    For example, you and I, as human beings, have the same soul because we each are exercising the same mode of existence (which we call human). Dogs have their own mode of existence. I think we could look at artifacts, like cars and chairs, as having souls as well—or perhaps as simply having “modifications” of souls which exist naturally (i.e. the scultpure is potentially contained in the block of marble).

    In terms of our metaphysical understanding of the world, I think it does add something. If we regard each being as an expression of the universe, then the soul of x basically sets the boundaries for x’s expression. We can look at the soul both as the potential of each being, or as the *limit* of each being. In the language of existentialism, we might say it is where existence stops, bordered by nothingness.

    Perhaps that’s more poetical then metaphysical? 😉

  4. John P Says:

    If I get your bottom line, basically you are saying there is no such thing as a soul. It’s an invention of man to explain things we couldn’t explain in the infancy and adolescence of human development. There is no evidence that a soul exists. Man had to point to something that our sense of our own existence, and knowing nothing about the function of the brain, and consciousness, they came up with the idea of the soul.

    Likewise, there is no supernatural, and I don’t believe in any duality of being. Advances in neuroscience seem to be pointing to our consciousness, what we often call our soul, as a simple function of the brain. There is only that singularity. I look forward to Sam Harris completing his doctorate in that field, as I expect he’ll have a lot of good things to say about the soul.

    I have no problem with the metaphorical use of the term, any more than I have a problem with the metaphorical use of the heart as a center for our emotions. Clearly the heart does not control emotion. It’s just a muscle. Same with the soul. It’s a nice concept, and give us something to rhyme with on Hallmark cards, but it explains nothing.

  5. evanescent Says:

    Hi Imugi and John P and thanks for the comments; I’ve been away.

    Actually Imugi what you said makes a lot of sense. Perhaps it’s poetical but it’s a very interesting way of seeing existence. I especially like the ‘sculpture being contained in a block of marble’ thought experiment.

    John P: we agree 100%!

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